Whether you open your own paralegal practice, or work under a supervising attorney, conducting client interviews will be a key part of your paralegal career.
Solid interviewing skills are crucial for several reasons. The way you prepare for and conduct each interview influences the quality of information you gather, the trust you instill in clients—and even the likelihood of earning good recommendations and referrals.
Your first client interviews after graduating from paralegal training can be nerve-wracking. But if you remember these 5 key steps, you'll make a great impression every time.
1. Getting ready for the interview
There are several important steps paralegals take when preparing for client interviews. In fact, you could say that these preparatory steps are almost as important as the interview itself!
You're setting the stage for a successful first meeting, which means locking down a time and a place to meet, and gathering all of the documents you'll need during the initial interview.
In the days or weeks leading up to your client meeting, you will need to:
- think through the goals of the interview; the questions you'll need to ask, the facts you'll need to uncover or confirm
- confirm the date, time, and place with the client in advance (do a reminder call or email)
- let the client know which documents or information to bring to the meeting, or if you require certain items in advance
- organize all of the documents and information you'll need for the meeting (including forms the client may need to sign)
- review the information you have so far: look for inconsistencies, missing details, and start formulating questions
- prepare the interview space (for example, make sure your office is organized, your desk is cleared of any clutter or files from other cases, and that your client will have a comfortable place to sit)
2. Building trust and rapport
Your goal during the first few moments of the interview should be to establish trust and begin building rapport with your new client. Remember, this person is entrusting you with his/her legal problems. Whether it's a landlord and tenant dispute, wrongful dismissal case, or a workplace injury claim—chances are, your client will be feeling anxious and looking for reassurance.
How should paralegals go about gaining their client's confidence? Tips include:
- Using a warm and friendly tone; show you empathize with what the client is going through
- Avoiding legal jargon and stuffy language: break it down in terms your client will actually understand
- Project self-assurance so your client will feel confident in your skills
- Don't leap right into questioning: take a moment or two to chat with the client and set him/her at ease
3. Strategies for questioning your client
Once you've set your client at ease, it's time to begin the interview. Walk the client through the purpose of the meeting, and what you're aiming to accomplish that day.
You will probably have a questionnaire prepared in advance, and will work through each question, striving to gather as many facts and details as possible. In order to ensure you cover all the bases, and to encourage your client to open up, you will use different questioning strategies.
- asking open-ended questions so the client can explain what happened in their own words
- using yes/no question to confirm specific facts
- asking "narrow" questions to pin down important details (such as, "Who was in the car at the time of the accident?")
- asking the same question again in a different way (to confirm a detail, or elicit more information from the client)
The quality and type of questioning you use will directly impact the level of detail, and accuracy, of the facts you gather. Experiment with different question "structures" to see which combinations are best for clarifying and expanding your understanding of the case.
4. The importance of listening
Because they're feeling nervous and looking for reassurance, your clients will probably be eager to talk about their legal problems. The "way" you listen will have a big impact on the rapport you build, and the clarity you can distill from what they tell you.
Attentive listening (maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, using engaged body language) will show your client you care, and are paying close attention to what they say.
Active listening (asking a follow-up question, summarizing what you've heard so far, making a comment) will demonstrate your understanding—and help you clarify details and gather more facts.
It's very important to avoid judgment or criticism during the interview. Remain as neutral as possible, listen respectfully, and focus on helping your client by gathering the information you'll need to advocate effectively on their behalf.
5. Wrapping up the interview
It can be difficult to control and direct the discussion during a client interview, but try to wrap things up within the time you agreed upon. For example, if you decided on a one-hour meeting, and there are only 5 minutes remaining, let the client know you'll be concluding the meeting shortly.
You can always set up another meeting if needed, and can reassure the client that you're available to answer follow-up questions by phone or email.
Before you say goodbye, be sure to walk your client through important next steps. Let them know if you require additional documents or signatures, when you'll be getting in touch, and which legal procedures will happen next.
Close the interview with professionalism and warmth. Walk your client to the door, shake their hand, give them your business card, and explain exactly when you'll be seeing each other next.
Final steps? Take a few moments after the interview to evaluate how it went. What could you have done better? Are you satisfied with the outcome? What will you aim to improve during your next client interview?
Jot down a few notes, and review those observations and goals before your next meeting. And remember: mastering the fine art of legal interviewing doesn't happen over night! It takes time and repeated effort. Put in the work, and you'll get there!
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